In the five years since Li-Cycle was created, the battery recycling company has rapidly expanded to include four commercial plants and one hub. But as the rate of electric vehicle production ticks up, its current operations will look like a trial run, said Ajay Kochhar, Li-Cycle's CEO and co-founder.
"Imagine a future that's fully electric or majority electric. That is a big, big opportunity and challenge. We're already thinking there," he said. Over the next few decades, "the orders of magnitude will just continue to grow."
As automakers scale EV production, battery recycling will become a key piece of the supply chain. Used-battery volume is too low to create much recycling demand today, but that will change soon, said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights.
"A decade from now, that won't be the case," Abuelsamid said. "They need to build up that capacity fairly soon."
Just four years ago, some of the industry doubted that battery cells developed with recycled materials could match those made with virgin metals. Battery recyclers have since overcome much of that skepticism.
"They don't lose any of their effectiveness once you reprocess it and purify it again," Abuelsamid said. "You basically have the same thing you would have had if you extracted it from the ground."
Batteries can be assembled with recycled materials at a lower cost than with virgin materials, and recycling shrinks the carbon footprint of battery manufacturing, Kochhar said.
"The overall environmental footprint coming from recycled product is way, way, way lower than having to dig it out of the earth in a complicated supply chain," Kochhar said. "The world has changed 180 degrees on perception around recycling."
Li-Cycle in May partnered with General Motors with a goal of recycling up to 100 percent of the scrap from battery cell manufacturing. Ninety-five percent of the cobalt, nickel, lithium, graphite, copper, manganese and aluminum from GM's next-generation Ultium batteries can be used in new batteries or for adjacent industries.
The range and efficiency of recycled batteries should be similar to, if not better than, batteries made from virgin materials, Kochhar said.
"The impurities that cause issues sometimes from the virgin source have been already worked out in the system," he said.
Recycling the batteries and reusing their parts simplifies and streamlines manufacturing, Kochhar said.
The elements needed for future batteries already exist in used batteries, so rather than pull materials from multiple supply chains, battery-makers can rely mostly on one value stream that's already been purified, he said.
"When you're digging ore out of the ground, or pumping something out of a brine in the case of lithium, there are a lot of impurities," he said. "What we're getting is already very refined, and those impurities that tend to be problematic are already very low."